Jewish World Review Jan. 28, 2003 / 25 Shevat 5763

Clarence Page

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Consumer Reports

Shaq vs. Yao, a new world diss-order | Sometimes trash talking goes too far, even in the entertainment industry known as sports.

Shaquille O'Neal tarnished his long-held image as a loveable giant in popular culture (anybody remember his non-Oscar-winning role as the genie Kazaam in the 1996 kid-flick of the same name? Anybody?) when he crudely mocked the native tongue of his Chinese rookie rival, center Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets.

He was only joking, Shaq insists, when he said on a cable TV sports talk show last June, "Tell Yao Ming, 'Ching-chong-yang-wash-ah-soh.'"

Asian community leaders were not amused. After AsianWeek columnist Irwin Tang heard the remark replayed, he decried Shaq's insensitivity in a December column. The Organization of Chinese Americans called on Shaq to apologize.

Judy Chu, Democratic chairwoman of California's Assembly Select Committee on Hate Crimes, called on the NBA to sanction Shaq. Protesters picketed the Jan. 17 Lakers-Rockets game outside Houston's Compaq Center, protesting O'Neal's remarks.

I sympathize. I've heard many painful stories from Asian-Americans who grew up with occasional taunts from non-Asians who tugged at the corners of their eyes and spewed "ching-chong" sounds like a drawer full of silverware falling to the floor.

But Yao got the last laugh-in several ways. First, he helped lead the Rockets to a 108-104 victory over the Lakers in overtime in the Jan. 17 game.

Then, when final All-Star ballots were tallied this past Thursday, young Yao, 22, defeated O'Neal by almost a quarter-million votes to be the starting center for the Western Conference at the Feb. 9 game in Atlanta.

And, most impressive for a young man who still struggles with English, he showed a worldly traveler's keen and quick understanding of the communications gap between Shaq's perspective and that of Asians-and quickly bridged it.

"I believe Shaquille O'Neal was joking," he said, "but I think that a lot of Asian people don't understand that kind of joke."

Then, noting that the "world is getting smaller," he showed a little wit toward Shaq. "Chinese is hard to learn," he said. "I had trouble with it when I was little."

Of course, "little" is a relative term coming from a 7-foot-five, 300 pound, 22-year-old man. Nevertheless, he showed the enormous grace and good humor of Jackie Robinson back in the tension-filled days after he broke baseball's color line in the late 1940s.

That's appropriate, since Yao's rapidly rising reputation as a player and a team unifier is making him a Chinese version of Robinson at a time when Asians are growing as an NBA audience here and overseas.

I received several e-mails from Chinese Americans who were upset that Shaq's affront attracted almost none of the attention given to controversial white sports figures like John Rocker, Fuzzy Zoeller, Al Campanis, Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder and others who stuck their cleats in their mouths and, despite their apologies, lost their jobs or received other severe punishments for remarks that minorities took the wrong way.

For what it's worth, I defended each of these imprudent blabbermouths, in a qualified way. I believe that people who offend out of ignorance, instead of malice, should not be punished but re-educated in some way about why the offense was taken.

Unfortunately, the entertainment industry known as sports, sensitive perhaps to the large numbers of nonwhites out on the playing field compared to the few who are in management or ownership, tends either to overdo or under-do their response to such matters. It is curious to note, for example, how little attention Bonzi Wells of the Portland Trailblazers has received for at least three separate episodes in which white players for opposing teams have told reporters that he used such racial epithets as "honky" and "cracker" against them.

NBA officials said they could take no action as long as the charges were made only to reporters, not to the league. Maybe so, but you can't help but wonder how league officials would have reacted if the racial shoes in these cases were reversed.

It does not compliment me as an African American to see black athletes or officials held to a lower standard of behavior than their white counterparts. I long for the day when the entertainment industry known as sports can find reasonable ways to help their players and officials meet the same standards of tolerance and anger management that the rest of us in the working world are supposed to meet.

"We're all basketball players," Yao said. "We all live together on this earth."

Or, at least, we should be trying to.

The Shaq-Yao dustup illustrates how international the NBA has become, along with the rest of America.

It also shows how we African-Americans, no longer the only non-white minority that earns some attention, need to remember how it feels for people who look like Yao to see one of their own break the color bar in sports.

Yao appears to have done a very good job of acquainting himself with his new world. Shaq, like the rest of us, needs to get used to it, too.

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